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Mumbai: The republic of hope
Mumbai is like a marriage that is long in denial about being unhinged. And yet, like most marriages, it stumbles along and remains eternally enduring, its cohabitants comfortably numb, perpetually in motion on flyovers of fantasy, bypassing what lies beneath.
Any discussion on the city's grim realities is generally left to panels filled with ageing architects and well-meaning sociologists, under whirring fans in heritage venues whose names have been changed three times over. Instead, the people of Mumbai prefer to remain delusional about their maximum city even if it persistently crushes and minimises them into bits of debris washed in by the Arabian Sea.
That is because Mumbai is not a city as much as it is a series of well-crafted mythologies - from the magnificent cinematic black-and-white sweeps of Marine Drive portrayed so romantically in Hindi cinema, to the current, crazed hoardings boasting of 24th floor plunge pool bliss, with tiptop valets and breathless views.
The people of Mumbai - largely a confluence of immigrants from all over the country - have been bred on these alluring images. In the old days, they came seeking the beloved Johnny Walker crooning by the ocean;or they saw themselves as the innocent Raj Kapoor of Shree 420, thrown into a labyrinth of money and power, or later, as the angry young Bachchan in Deewar, who managed to inject romance even into street politics, points out Gyan Prakash, author of Mumbai Fables. More recently, they come with visions of turning into painted characters that live inside television sets, separate from the self, or of transforming into many intrepid Rakhi Sawants. They want to reach that 24th floor and find the mythical valet.
It is a city conjured up by media, fuelled by aspiration. Salman Rushdie had written: "Our Bombay: it looks like a hand, but it's really a mouth, always open, always hungry, swallowing food and talent from every where else in India. A glamorous leech, producing nothing except films bush shirts fish..."
Mumbai was always a city of opportunity, set apart from a country that denied people precisely that. Black-and-white may have gone colour, and the chimneys have morphed into glass and chrome stalagmites, but the aspirations have always been the same.
It's the city where a villager was allowed to dream the impossible and become a Vithal Bhelpuriwala or, even better, a Dhirubhai Ambani. And where a boy in a slum could gyrate his way to stardom. With such a drumbeat constantly amplified in people's heads, it doesn't make sense to deal with reality. Look at our newspapers. If, 100 years from now, an archivist were to scroll through the colour supplements and see the endless flood of shiny happy people, the smug cricketers and pouting starlets, the beaming businessmen and their sparkling wives, he might conclude that the city was perpetually on coke.
But reality is screaming through the city's subconscious, its subterranean network of misery which may find expression in a random railway track accident, or in that dead woman stuffed into a suitcase, lying unclaimed. Or, in the housewife whose cries no one hears because they are too busy catching the Virar fast.
The reality is that in its untrammeled desire to be part of a fantasy world, the people of Mumbai have stopped paying heed to life and living - to creating that balanced environment where open green spaces find equal footing with concrete;where pedestrians and Porsches are treated with equal respect;where the imagination can still soar above high rises and create a seemingly pointless poem. Poets have very little concern with price per square foot. Rather, they try and reach the inner world that coexists with the city. They plant the tree that suddenly blossoms in the midst of the cacophony. As that beloved city muse Nissim Ezekiel once wrote: "Unsuitable for song and sense/ the island flowers into slums/ and skyscrapers, reflecting/ precisely the growth of my mind. "
One of the greatest mythologies perpetuated by Mumbai is its cosmopolitan self. Mumbai and its people have long dished out a delectable bhelpuri of Parsis and Catholics and Hindus and Muslims, like some Amar Akbar Anthony fantasy. Films like Bombay tell of love stories between a Hindu and a Muslim. But the invisible walls have been going up faster than the Sensex, creating suffocating ghettos of ignorance and intolerance. Vegetarian housing societies have no room for even an egg. More and more buildings put up identity rules that would make a libertarian cringe. Books are banned if they do not meet the egotistical requirements of those who feel threatened. Worst of all, no one really cares.
Even the city's oldest and most loyal migrant residents, the flamingos, are not welcome any more.
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